This week, two videos circulated on social media.
In one of them, a white police officer shoots a black man multiple times in the back. In another one, taken two days later, a white teenager armed with an assault weapon who had just killed two people walks toward police with his arms up. Not only is he not arrested – he is evidently ignored, unrecognizable as a potential threat.
I won't get into details on how this is obviously fucked up and unjust. A lot has been written on systemic racism, and I believe there are far more people better suited than me to talk about this subject.
What's interesting is how the same two videos were differently received.
To me, this highlights another question we need to answer: why are we so polarized?
Why the same piece of information gets dismissed by a group of people but gets another group outraged?
Why we believe some news, and not others? Why we easily feel empathy towards certain people, and less easily towards others?
I'll share some pieces I found helpful in understanding this. Takeaways:
- Exposure to more varied opinions can actually make polarization worse. Simply making information more accessible isn't the solution.
- Identities organize the familiar, but divide the unfamiliar. The more we love the idea of “us,” the more we hate the idea of “them.” Without letting go of identity, no amount of information will ever shift our perspective.
- The primary use of social networks is to build social capital through signaling.
🧠 Brain Food
Why the media is so polarized - and how it polarizes us
20 minute read | Vox
A really interesting piece by Ezra Klein about how the media became what it is now.
Over the past decade, the dreams of democratic theorists everywhere actually came true. The internet made information abundant. The rise of online news gave Americans access to more information — vastly more information, orders of magnitude more information — than they had ever had before. And yet surveys showed we weren’t, on average, any more politically informed. Nor were we any more involved: Voter participation didn’t show a boost from the democratization of political information. Why?
The key factor now is not access to political information but interest in political information.
Let's think of television. Like the internet, television multiplied the amount of information available to people, and it spread like wildfire. But unlike the internet, television, at least in its early years, offered little choice. You might own a television because you refused to miss I Love Lucy, but if you had the TV on in the evening, you ended up sitting through the news anyway. Similarly, you might subscribe to the newspaper for the sports page, but that meant seeing the political stories on A1. Politics was bundled alongside everything else, and even the uninterested were pushed to consume political news.
The digital revolution offered access to unimaginably vast vistas of information, but, just as important, it offered access to unimaginably more choice. And that explosion of choice widened that interested/uninterested divide. Greater choices let the devotees learn more and the uninterested know less.
In today’s media sphere, where the explosion of choices has made it possible to get the political media you really want, it’s expressed itself in polarized media that attaches to political identity, conflict, and celebrity.
One study showed that the more political media people consumed, the more mistaken they were, in general, about the other party. This is a damning result: The more political media you absorb, the more warped your perspective of the other side becomes.
Another study showed how exposure to more varied opinions can actually make polarization worse. The result of the month-long exposure to popular, authoritative voices from the other side of the aisle was that respondents became more, not less, polarized. “We find that Republicans who followed a liberal Twitter bot became substantially more conservative post-treatment,” write the authors. “Democrats exhibited slight increases in liberal attitudes after following a conservative Twitter bot, although these effects are not statistically significant.”
To make things better, we need to make media better. The political media is biased, but not toward the left or right so much as toward loud, outrageous, colorful, inspirational, confrontational. It is biased toward the political stories and figures who activate our identities, because it is biased toward and dependent on the fraction of the country with the most intense political identities.
The Information Lifecycle: How Three Filters Shape the Mind
9 minute read | More To That
This is an awesome post by Lawrence Yeo about how information moves through our mind.
The moment an unknown fact passes through awareness, it becomes data, not information. This distinction is important. Data does not have to be processed, whereas information does.
The utility of data lies in our ability to react to it. If we have either the intellectual or emotional capacity to process it, only then does it becomes information.
Whenever we point to “information abundance,” what we are really saying is that we have “endless opportunities to react to data.” Whether it’s a 30-minute TV news segment or a never-ending Twitter feed, we will be able to see what we want to see, and toss out the things that we find questionable.
This selection mechanism is the final stage of the information lifecycle. There are some pieces of information that resonate so deeply that we allow it to shape our perspective of the world. And the filter that allows this to happen is shaped by the thing we hold onto most dearly: our identities.
Identities organize the familiar, but divide the unfamiliar. The more we love the idea of “us,” the more we hate the idea of “them.”
The greatest riddle of the 21st century is to learn how to accomplish this. As technology makes it easier for you to find your tribe, it also makes it just as easy to dismiss those who aren’t in it.
Identity is often seen as the root cause of our information biases, but in reality, it is just one filter in a greater lifecycle.
Without cultivating curiosity, the awareness filter remains closed to any facts in the first place.
Without updating our capabilities, we can’t react to whatever data we discover.
And without letting go of identity, no amount of information will ever shift our perspective.
Proof of X: How We Use Social Networks to Signal our Identities
6 minute read | Julian Lehr
A really insightful piece that dissects the primary use of social network: building social capital through signaling.
Signaling can be broken down into three different components:
- Signaling Message: A hidden status subtext you’re trying to convey about yourself (ie. A Patagonia vest signals both a prosocial attitude - “I care about the environment“ - as well as wealth - “I can afford to spend $500 on a jacket“)
- Signaling Distribution: The channel through which you’re communicating your signaling message (i.e. Instagram)
- Signaling Amplification: Ways to boost your signaling message to compete against status rivals (i.e. filters, editing tools)
Their primary role is to distribute signaling messages at scale and transform them into quantifiable social capital (in the form of likes and followers).
As social networks grow, they increase the potential reach of your signaling messages – but they also get crowded with status rivals. This is why social networks typically provide you with a set of signaling amplification tools. These tools help you boost your signaling messages and stand out from the crowd.
When new social networks emerge they have to introduce new proof mechanisms to differentiate themselves from existing incumbents. These can either be novel proof-of-creative-work hurdles or completely new proof-of-x mechanisms.
TikTok is a good example for proof-of-creative-work innovation. The app provides creators with a powerful set of video editing tools that have opened a whole new level of creativity.
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🎁 Box Of Random
Another interesting thing about political media is how both sides think that the other one should "wake up". Is real freedom possible? This video from Wisecrack aims to answer the question by analyzing one of my favorite movies, The Matrix.
Seth Godin on systemic problems:
Urgent problems are too important to earn only a moment of our attention. Important projects demand that we keep showing up to make the change we seek. Showing up and showing up, at the root and at every turn, consistently working toward systemic solutions.
A tale of two Nike ads: marketing's unhealthy obsession with "Inspiration" (5 minute read)
A hand-picked collection of the best educational channels across Youtube
Internet Historian, also known as Dr. Harold, is a YouTuber who makes documentaries on events on the internet (rabbit hole alert)
And if you come across anything interesting this week, send it my way. If there's something I like more than beer, it's finding new things to read through members of this newsletter.
-Gian🍺Buy me a beer